On ‘Between the World & Me’

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will never know what it is like to live as a black man or woman in today’s America. And, I can’t imagine raising a black child, particularly a young black man, in the US. All I can do is image the reality of knowing that they may not come home any time they leave.

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ long letter to his son, I can understand the pain of history and helplessness that accompanies current events a little bit better.

Coates is very quickly becoming one of my favourite writers on contemporary issues in the US. His perspective alone equally intrigues and compels me. His writing blows me away. Through it, I can feel his anguish and uncertainty and anger, and share those sentiments. I also feel more than a little shame for being a part of a system that values him less than me simply by virtue of our individual histories. I am privileged because I am white and solidly middle class, as well as for growing up in a suburban utopia that never knew the dangers of simply stepping outside whilst black.

I sat down to read a part of this book; I ended up finishing it in a single sitting.

Everyone, and I do mean everyone, should read this book. Not once, but multiple times. If we ever hope to move beyond the existing divisions and racial inequity that surrounds us all, we need to understand the experiences of those like Coates. It will make us squirm with discomfort and shame by actions which I imagine we in our privilege never think of twice. And, it should.

But, by understanding such perspectives a little better, we can also understand why so many feel compelled to take a knee or protest yet another white cop escaping justice for killing another unarmed black man.

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Bigger picture & wider lens

einstein-picture-full-uncropped

Arthur Sasse / AFP

Maybe it’s because I love the notion of the mad scientist. But, I love Einstein.

His brilliant mind aside, I love his wit and eccentricity, along with his passion for communicating science and his own work within it.

One of my favourite images of Einstein other than him sat in wacky dress donning furry slippers (naturally) features the not-so-mad scientist sticking his tongue out. I’ve had a version of that image for as long as I can remember, and it never fails to cheer me up and remind me to embrace the silliness whenever I can.

I decided to use the image for a talk I’m giving later today to women in STEM at the University of Helsinki. The talk itself is on communicating science. And, as I’ve been thinking about and formulating precisely what I want to say on communicating science vis-á-vis the dreaded conference presentation, that image of Einstein has popped up in my head over and over again.

When looking up images as I was preparing, I found a bit on the history of it, and love it even more now.

My original intention and own message for including it focused on simply ‘being yourself’ during presentations. When we attempt to assume someone else’s notion of what it means to be a researcher or scientist or instructor (in my case), we become disingenuous and lose credibility amongst our audiences. We aren’t actors, after all. And, we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We also lose the plot of our message as well. Rather than water down our own personalities and individualities, I say bring them to the forefront when presenting.

But, also, I think this image reminds us to have fun with our presentations, particularly when we care most about the messages we are communicating. Most of those with whom I work research incredibly interesting yet at times troubling or difficult topics. It’s hard work no doubt. But each of us are truly passionate about our work (I hope) and I’d like to think that we also have fun with it.

In addition and after reading the back story behind this image of Einstein and his tongue, to me the image now serves as a reminder to never assume that the audience will intuitively get the full picture of the story we’re attempting to tell. Unless, that is, we actually tell the story well.

Details matter. As does the bigger picture and wider lens.

Why is saying ‘no’ so hard?

I confess. I’m a workaholic.

I do not do well when bored, nor do I do well when I don’t have deadlines and to-do lists. Perhaps because of those other truths, I’ve never been particularly adept at saying ‘no’, particularly when it comes to work. Perhaps those leaner days now leave me simply reluctant to not take advantage of opportunities when they come my way.

As it is, ‘no’ doesn’t feature much in conversations related to work at the moment, although that is about to change. It has to.

I admit that I’m struggling. I’m not exactly falling behind so much as keeping *just* ahead. As much as I’ve worked harder to manage my time better and more efficiently and not begin tasks just before deadlines and maintain a steady stream of crisis management, currently the pace seems unrelenting. I love my job. But the combination of an unrelenting work schedule along with various other stressors in life have left me exhausted. As a consequence, I feel like I’m not doing my best. Either in my job or in life. It may be perfectly fine for others, but this is not fine for me.

More than anything I need to find moments to step away from it all, and, if necessary, schedule sufficient time to rest, recover and simply decompress. A walk with my husband on some days has proved impossible. Finding 20 minutes to sit and sip a cup of coffee whilst reading nonsense is difficult, let alone finding an hour or so to kit up and hit the running trails for an hour or so.

I’m nearly halfway through a particularly tough week, tough because I can’t simply say ‘no’. I know that the busyness will pass soon enough.

For now, if I seem distracted or scattered or simply not ‘present’, forgive me. In all honesty, I’m learning to say ‘no’.

Sunset over Munkkiniemi

 

Hubris squared

Sometime in May or June of 2008, I stumbled across an absolutely unbelievable podcast that explained the burgeoning housing crisis and soon-to-be catastrophic turmoil on Wall Street. The Giant Pool of Money (parts 1 and 2) talked about well… a giant pool of money, and why this might be a concern for all of us.

We’re all well familiar with the hubris of the financial industry and Wall Street in particular by now. And, whilst many lives were changed and the fall-out from the 2008 global financial collapse is a bit better understood now, we’ve seemingly moved on. Fines were levied against banks and their CEOs and directors. Much money was pumped into an industry that created an unimaginable mess all in the name of greed. Yet, no one was really held to account for creating economic calamity for millions. At least no one in the US.

As Main Street called for ‘heads to roll’, no real consequences befell those who orchestrated the largest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Enter the single attempt to prosecute those ‘responsible’. And, enter hubris of an entirely different sort.

Ultimately, Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Manhattan was found not guilty (quite rightly). But, why was it the target of prosecution for acting precisely as it should once employees acting against the law were discovered and following established risk procedures? Yet, still, the larger, more powerful banks that instituted predatory lending practices, whose CEOs earned billions whilst their banks nearly failed, remain untouched and unscathed?

Perhaps Ralph Nader was right: only the super-rich can save us all. I’m not holding my breath, but I will cheer for and applaud institutions like Abacus.

On ‘They Say / I Say’

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic WritingThey Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A colleague and friend of mine passed along this book’s citation, suggesting that it might be of interest to me for a new course I’m teaching on academic rhetoric and argumentation.

She could not have made a more apt book recommendation.

What a gem for those seeking to become better academic writers as well as for those guiding others to improve their writing skills and prose. Examining academic texts not simply as a report of findings but as a conversation amongst scholars helps to create clear and engaging texts, rather than prose that suffers from the inaccessibility label often lobbed at members of the academy and their manuscripts.

Indeed, I’m often asking my own students why academic texts shouldn’t engage readers, even those from fields and disciplines further removed from their own?

I’ll be recommending this to all of my students from now on. And, revisiting this book as I work to improve my own writing as well my classes.

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And, just like that…

I run because it helps me battle my worst inner demons. I run because running is one of the only things that allows me to empty my head of all the nonsense that accumulates each day. I run because I can.

Yesterday was tough for a multitude of reasons. Today remains anxiety-riddled, largely because Irma has adopted Cuban time and appears stalled in between Cuba and Florida. She’s ravaged Cuba, although perhaps sparing Havana her worst. But, we still await word on those we love in Cuba, and continue to hope that they are well. Florida is another matter entirely. And, all we can do is continue to wait. Wait and hope we shall.

But, yesterday was also a victory for me. A seemingly small one. But, a victory all the same.

I can’t say that my Helsinki Midnight Run went at all smoothly. But, I finished, and I am proud.

Here’s what I’m taking away from the experience:

Two weeks ago, mentally I hit a gigantic, immovable brick wall. For reasons that don’t really matter and which I’m still processing, I sank into a state of despair and antipathy that I’ve evaded for a while. My little black dog barked and growled loudly and stripped me of my running and all other mojo. Thus, my last run prior to yesterday was two weeks ago today.

In addition, the last week or so, I’ve also been trying to ward off a bit of a chest cold or bug. Thus, earlier this week, when I looked at my schedule (which is mental) and the weather forecast for the run (which predicted rain, rain and more rain), I was certain I would not line up. Rather unfortunate given that I’d spent the last several months working hard towards that 10 k / Midnight Run goal.

But, sometime on Friday, I decided, ‘Fuck it. I’m running it. I may not have a great time and I may walk bits. But, who cares?! I signed up. I’ll at least start it!’

So, I started. One of the best moments came just before I started. As The Cuban and my close friend Jules escorted me to the runners’ starting area and relieved me of my jacket and bag of post-race crap, they believed in me even when I was uncertain. The Cuban, perhaps sensing more than anyone just how anxious and filled with doubt I was simply said just before the final pre-race smooch, ‘I’m so proud of you’. [Yes, I’m all choked up now reading that.]

My Race

After the finish and after the post-race swag grab, I snapped this before meeting up with The Cuban and my friend Jules. Yeah, I’m proud.

My Midnight Run

Images from a Helsinki Midnight Run: the start, the masquerade runners, my start group banner, the post-race hydration mission — G&T, and water of all sorts — and back home once the hat finally came off.

It struck me as odd since I hadn’t started yet or run a single step in two weeks. But, at the same time, that short little declaration said everything, and reflects why I’m proud of me.

I signed up. I laced up. I lined up. And, I started. More so, I finished. And, yes, I’m proud of me for that.

The race itself was hard and lovely at once. I went slow. But, slow beats standing still. I had breathing issues about 4 km in and had to find a port-a-potty, but I kept going. The skies opened and the rains came somewhere between the third and fourth kilometres and didn’t really stop, although it did let up to a gentle mist at some point.

I walked bits, but I kept going. I high-fived as many bystanders as possible because they helped me to keep going, and I’m grateful that they braved the elements simply to cheer us crazy, mad near-midnight runners on. And, I smiled. Even when it hurt, I smiled. Because I could continue to put one foot in front of the other, and just keep going. Before I knew it, I was passing the 9 km marker and then the 500 m to go banner.

And, just like that, I finished. Truth be told, it hurt I finished strong. More importantly, I finished!

As much as the worst critic (that little black dog barking in my head) wants to find fault in what didn’t go right last night, the runner in me is screaming, ‘Shut up, fool! You got out there and you did it! Who cares that it didn’t go smoothly?! Not every run goes well.’ And of the three Midnight Runs I’ve completed, this was my best.

For that, I’m proud.

My running story isn’t over — it’s just getting started.

Waiting….

Today, it’s all about waiting.

Waiting to start the 2017 addition of the Helsinki Midnight Run. (My start time is 21.25, Helsinki time.)

Waiting to hear how prepared and where are family and friends in Florida are hunkered down and hopefully safe from Irma’s approach. (Last forecast has her hitting the Florida Keys early Sunday morning local time, Sunday afternoon our time.)

And, waiting to learn the fate of those who are currently riding out Irma’s wrath across Cuba.

I hate waiting. For anything. But, waiting on all of this on the same day has me unbelievably restless and anxious and fidgety. And, the weather here appears to reflect my mood rather well — rainy, windy and generally miserable and unsettled.

There’s absolutely nothing we can do from here for those in Florida and Cuba currently either experiencing what I image to be hollowing winds and lashing rain, deafening and terrifying at once. I can’t help but worry about those we’ve met who live far too close to the water’s edge. I can’t help but think of the waves currently crashing over the Malecón, which will likely grow and intensify as Irma follows Cuba’s coast. And, I hope against hope that not too much is washed away.

And, I can’t help but wonder what will remain tomorrow and the day after.

And, then comes Florida, likely to take on the full force or Irma’s terror.

As I sit or pace or try to work and take my mind off Irma’, the faces of those I love flash before my eyes, whether in Cuba or Florida.

And the word that comes to mind is simply, ‘¡cuidate!’

Be safe.